—— What are the goals of the JAHSSD?
Our mission is to locate, gather, identify and preserve items related to the Japanese-American experience in San Diego. We also do our best to disseminate that information through exhibits and speaking engagements at schools and other organizations to help people have a better understanding of our history, including the internment camp experience. We limit ourselves to San Diego County, but because we’re all volunteers, even covering all of S.D. isn’t easy. We don’t go into Baja, we don’t go into Imperial Valley, we just stay right here in S.D. mainly because of resources. There’s a tremendous history just in Baja alone and some of those stories are at risk of never being told. The same is true of northern S.D.... Oceanside, San Marcos. We are in danger of losing much of that history.
—— JHow did the JAHSSD get started?
Well, the magnet for an organization such as ours is the evacuation and camp experience and our organization grew out of that, in particular our 1991 Poston reunion. Since the 80’s, every couple of years we (the Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps) have held a Poston internee reunion. It rotates from city to city; from S.D. to L.A. to San Jose and Fresno. There were three camps in Poston I, II, and III. This is Poston III. Anyway, in 1991 it was our turn to host it in S.D. and we had the idea to put on an exhibit. Ten of us, headed up by our historian Don Estes, along with our co-chairs Bruce Asakawa and Yukio Kawamoto worked to put it together. We really wanted to show what life was like in Poston and the camp experience. We had photographs, handicrafts and so may other things from every day life. It was a beautiful exhibit and we had a huge turn out. Everyone was just captivated by it.
That time we didn’t let the public in... we only let friends and family of the internees in because we felt so many people were hurting deep inside and I knew when we started it would stir up some deep emotions and scars that people don’t want to talk about. My thinking was that I wanted to try to easy the pain of those people still hurting after all those years. It was a very sacred thing for us and I didn’t want people who never experienced this to come and dilute it in any way. And you know a lot of the internees were crying... and I didn’t want no writer or TV camera to see them like that.
Along with that, we also had an exhibit honoring Clara Breed, who was the Children’s Librarian way back in the ’30s and ’40s. A lot of the kids back then used to go to the Children’s Library and my first wife Kathrine was one of them. Well, Clara Breed got to know a lot of us Japanese - American kids and when the war broke out she came down to the train depot to send us off... and she was handing out these penny postcards telling everyone, “Write to me! Write to me! Let me know how you’re doing!” and son-of-a-gun a lot of the kids from Poston started to write to her. Well no one knew until later but she had saved all those letters for all those 40 years. She did so much for the children: sending them books and pencils... dresses and gum, everything, so we wanted to honor her. When she came to the exhibit in 1991 she said to me, “Ben you guys have so much history here... You’ve got to start a historical society... you gotta do it and let the people know!” So on September 4, 1991 we made it official.
—— Who were your first members?
Well that was easy. The group we brought together to handle the exhibit didn’t really want to disband. We had such a good time that we wanted to keep it going. Then with Miss Breed’s encouragement I thought, “Hey, I’ve already got a crew here! Let’s get started.” So every person on our exhibit committee became a board member of the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego. They convinced me to be the first president. I figured I’d do it for a couple of years to help get it going, but I ended up doing it for 6 or 7 years. In the beginning it was just us, but now we have over 400 members.
—— So after you officially formed the JAHSSD what was your next project?
Well, with Don Estes’ (JAHSSD historian) guidance we began a project to preserve the histories of our parents, we wanted to interview as many as we could document their lives... what life was like for them. We decided to pick it up after they reached the US, we couldn’t take it any further because we didn’t have the resources. So we started the long process of recording and transcribing interviews. They’re all cataloged so that children and families or anybody who is interested can get first hand accounts of the events that took place. It’s still one of our ongoing activities and each year we add to our archives.
—— How do you get your message of this time out to people?
We want to gather and disseminate as much information as possible, for members we’ve got our own quarterly publication “Footprints” and we’ve also organized a speaker’s bureau. So when we get a request, asking if we can send a speaker Boom! we’re there. Naturally we get a lot of requests for speakers who have actually been in the camps. We try to accommodate people as best as possible, but to this day there are some of us who still will not talk about this dark period of our lives. They have a tremendous story to tell but for whatever reason can’t do it. Usually, there are 3 or 4 of us and we have a panel and we bring a small exhibit so people can see something of what it was like. I usually end our conversations by saying that the Poston experience made us stronger, so I’m proud to say that I have 4 children, we sent them all to college, 2 of them got graduate degrees. We figured if we fill their brain with all kinds of information and knowledge no one can ever take that away from them. They could take my car or house, but they can’t take what you’ve got in your brain. Nobody can take that away from you.
—— Did anything good come from the time in Poston?
One of the good things that came out of the evacuation was that I met many of my dear friends there. I was only eleven when we left. It’s 2003 now and that was 1942... we’ve been friend for more than 60 years!! Those friendships that came out of that are the “silver lining” and I must keep in touch with at least 50 people because we share a strong bond and camaraderie... Poston did that. Poston built this bond among all of us internees... I may never have met a lot of them if not for the camps.
—— I understand that the JAHSSD has also made a documentary “Democracy Under
You know how this came about? There was a group of people that approached the CA Library Association, with the idea that Japanese-American’s history needed to be documented and they convinced them, so CA legislature provided a million dollars a year for three years to fund various projects to document it. We petitioned them for $75,000 to do a video and by golly we got it! Actually, we only got $50,000, but because people in our group felt so strongly about this project we were able to raise the funds to do it right. We worked very hard to make sure it was historically correct and to show people that this situation isn’t limited only to Japanese-Americans, but that it could’ve happened to anyone. That’s why we’ve sent it to hundreds of schools all over.
—— I know part of the documentary was based on your personal experience. Did you feel any pressure knowing you were representing so many other people in your situation?
I was just telling my own story about going on the train ride to the camps. Like what we did to prepare for something we didn’t know anything about or even where we were going. You go because your parents (and the government) said we had to.
—— You’ve preserved so many things and so many personal histories, do you have a permanent place to house your exhibits and hold meetings etc.?
No, but we’ve got our feelers out there... looking for something that might fit us. We would love to have a permanent building that we can call our own. We used to house everything in my garage and bedroom and now it’s all in Don’s basement. We definitely need to find some place to preserve this collection. Wherever the door may open if it fits our philosophy we’ll jump in with both feet. We’ve got the drive and enthusiasm but we don’t have the money that it’s going to take to do it. The real problem is that we’ve had to turn some larger things away because we just don’t have any place to put them. Photographs are easier, but large objects from the farms and agriculture are near impossible. We’ve got an old anvil and that must weigh 300 lbs. and no place to put it. Still we take some things so not only one family can enjoy them, but that everyone can for many years to come.
—— Your all volunteers and busy with so many other things, why does everyone do it?
My kids never asked me about my Poston experience at all... never did. Someday though people will have questions. I know that our children... when they reach a certain age are going to start thinking... where are my roots? It going to dawn on them eventually in their lifetime and this is why we have worked so hard at creating a resource for people to go to for the answers.
—— What would you like to accomplish in the future?
I’d like to see more young people get involved with the JAHSSD because whether they realize it or not they are creating history too and someday their kids are going to want to know what things were like. We’d also like to reach out to Japanese people in our community and abroad to say that we do exist and we want to get to know each other better. Our groups don’t really mingle too much and we want to break that cultural barrier, if we can, to develop a stronger relationship and help both sides to understand each other better. I think we can draw strength from each other and have much to learn.
(03-16-2003 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)